A P.T. Barnum for the nuclear age, B-movie producer and self-made horror showman William Castle probably deserves better film bio treatment than “Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story.” Little more than an extended DVD extra, docu has been made with genuine affection by producer/director/co-editor Jeffrey Schwartz, but is so breathlessly paced that one wonders what the hurry is all about. AFI Fest audience award winner will knock ’em dead in vid and specialty cable.
Like many showbiz upstarts in the early 20th century, Castle changed his name from a more ethnic origin (his German family name, Schloss, literally translates as “castle”), learned a lot from the stage (gimmicks with a stage version of “Dracula” turned a B.O. trick) and had a glancing connection with Orson Welles.
Schwartz draws a thoughtful comparison between Castle’s key Hollywood mentor, Columbia’s notorious Harry Cohn, and Castle himself, who developed a reputation in Hollywood as a genuinely nice family man (Castle’s daughter, Terry, backs this up on camera.) The business doesn’t turn everyone into a monster, and Castle appeared to be living proof, instead channeling his demons into a string of B-horror programmers concocted in the late ’50s, when he had had enough of working for the studios.
“Spine Tingler!” is most fun describing the key Castle movies — “Macabre,” the rather dull “The House on Haunted Hill,” the amusingly silly “The Tingler” (his second venture with Vincent Price), “13 Ghosts” — and fans-turned-moviemakers like John Waters and Joe Dante, who enjoy recalling the cheesy, giddy effect the pics had on auds. (References to and/or clips from Dante’s own terrific feature tribute to Castle, “Matinee,” are inexplicably AWOL.)
Castle’s homegrown genius lay in knowing that the movies weren’t enough, but had to have something extra to lure crowds. For “Macabre,” it was a Lloyd’s of London insurance policy against death by fright; then it was 3-D effects like “Emergo” (fake skeletons in the cinema), “Illusion-O” (quasi-3-D glasses able to “view” ghosts onscreen) and “Percepto” (theater seats rigged with vibrating buzzers).
Pic perhaps makes too much of President Kennedy’s assassination and ’60s cultural tumult as causes for Castle’s decline; more likely it was the technical advances in genre moviemaking, which made many of his pics look fairly cheap. His long-delayed leap into A movies, as producer of “Rosemary’s Baby” (which he originally wished to direct himself), proved a short-lived, if lucrative, victory, and doc finally slows down long enough to take measure of Castle’s frustrating final years in the ’70s.
Overly bright and uneven look (resulting from no fewer than 11 credited cameramen) indicates a work best suited to DVD viewing, where at least viewers feeling too rushed by Schwartz and Philip Harrison’s hyper editing can hit the pause button.